'College in Prison'

New book tells the story of initiative that brings liberal arts education to incarcerated men and women.

March 2, 2017
 

If given the opportunity to pursue a demanding college education, anyone -- even society’s most isolated, stigmatized individuals -- can rise to the occasion.

That’s the idea behind College in Prison: Reading in an Age of Mass Incarceration (Rutgers University Press), a new book by Daniel Karpowitz about the ways that a liberal arts education can transform the lives of people living behind bars. In the book, Karpowitz, professor of law and the humanities at Bard College and a director of the Bard Prison Initiative, reflects on his 15-year history with the Bard prison program and reveals many of the intricacies, challenges and rewards that have come with it.

Since 2001, the initiative has delivered a liberal arts education -- including courses on anthropology, literature, political science, history and the Mandarin language -- to hundreds of prisoners in the United State. These courses come with a rigorous curriculum and stimulating classroom discussions, and for some, the degrees they earn offer the chance for a better job -- a better life -- after prison.

Since its inception, the BPI has partnered with a number of liberal arts colleges across the country, in hopes of allowing more prisoners to participate in what has been a powerful, even life-changing, experience for many.

Inside Higher Ed had a chance to talk with Karpowitz about the book. His emailed responses are below.

Q: In College in Prison, you say this has been your calling for the last 20 years or so. What, exactly, drew you into this work? Can you describe when and how you first became interested?

A: I long had a desire to have one foot in the academy and one foot outside of it. Throughout law school I mixed serious graduate work in the humanities and social sciences with an interest in constitutionalism and civil rights. It was [the University of] Chicago in the late '90s, and I was introduced to the facts about mass incarceration by faculty and politicians connected to the university. Some of them suggested I work on a successful community-based alternative to incarceration back in my native Philadelphia. Later, after stints in the rhetoric department at [the University of California, Berkeley] and work on justice mapping in NYC, when I first got up to Bard, the dean introduced me to the person who was starting the college in prison project, and we really saw things eye to eye -- that this was work that was first and foremost about a love of learning, and a belief that brains and talent are everywhere: it was passion for college and an unusual mix of democratic faith and high-status aspirations for students. The criminal justice intervention was a crucial but secondary concern. I felt at home at once.

Q: Do the college professors teach, evaluate or treat the students in prison differently from students in traditional classrooms, and if so, how? What is it like for you, personally, to teach college-level courses to prison inmates?

A: We and the faculty do a remarkable dance treating all students the same, while addressing the particular needs of students bursting with talent, brains and ambition, but who have so long been failed by their formal institutions of learning. Students get a lot of support and “remediation,” but with almost no formal course work segregated into a remedial or developmental track. It’s creative, challenging, rigorous liberal arts from day one, and the development of skills is woven into that along the way. It makes it more demanding, perhaps, for both faculty and students, but since everyone is so turned on, it seems to work. If anything, I’d say the standards have to be higher at the prison campus, since the graduates will always be scrutinized more in their future academic and professional lives. It’s not fair, perhaps, but it’s the reality. Beyond that, faculty, courses, curricula and standards are almost identical on Bard’s conventional and BPI campuses. In addition to BPI, I’ve taught at the law campus in Kathmandu, to rhetoric majors at Berkeley, and many times at Bard’s main campus. I know it’s sort of sacrilegious to say, but I find the similarities among students as important if not more so than their differences.

Q: The Bard Prison Initiative aims to connect prison inmates with a college education. What advantage do these prisoners have from taking classes and pursuing an education through a liberal arts college specifically?

A: Same as anyone else. A former dean of the law school at Notre Dame who has supported the college in prison project there said to me once, “As an undergrad, as a law student and later, after my wife died and I went back to join the priesthood, Notre Dame helped me define my purpose in life. That’s what any great university should do, and that’s what Bard does for students through BPI.” That sounded right to me -- people need to be turned on and they need to find a purpose in life. Above all, they need to come to realize -- through the joys of hard-won accomplishments -- just how much the world has to offer them, and just how much they have to offer the world. That’s a pretty good start, I think, of a definition of a liberal arts education.

Q: The BPI has partnered with a number of other colleges to bring education to prisoners in other areas of the country. How successful have these partnerships been? What are your short- and long-term goals for scaling the program?

A: By and large they’ve been very successful: hundreds of students across the country going to first-rate colleges and universities, when beforehand they had no opportunity for higher education at all. All of these programs have credits and transcripts, all have or are working toward multiple degree programs, and all share a passion for the liberal arts as well as a commitment to a life after college of professional and academic achievement for their alumni -- that is commensurate with not with having done time in prison, but with having graduated from a great American institution of higher education. I’d say that at BPI our short-term goals are to find ever more colleges and universities prepared to take the modest moral risk of saying that this sort of work is indeed part of their mission, that they celebrate their own place in the meritocracy of American higher education but also know full well that this meritocracy has deep, even grave flaws. So our short-term goal is further expansion. But long term it’s continuing to shatter expectations of what students are capable of, and changing the habits of great schools about where great students can be found, and at which moments in life.

Q: At this point, you’ve read thousands of essays from prisoners seeking entrance into college. What themes have emerged from those essays? What have the many different voices of those prisoners taught you -- whether it's about mass incarceration, higher education or something else entirely?

A: That’s a great question, and one I have to admit I’m really not ready to answer. I’m certain several of my colleagues on the faculty would have eloquent and exceptionally insightful things to say right now and will be furious with me for dodging. But I’ll offer this, at least: for all the great diversity of voices, I’m always reminded -- not taught so much as reminded -- about how keen insight is a faculty that almost all people have within in them, and that college is just a place to cultivate it and take up one’s collective inheritances, and so on. The application essays, regardless of formal literacy, are often full of intellect and insight. One thing we also remark on often is how diverse and accomplished are the modes of what we might call informal literacy: the reading and writing and journaling that people do that have nothing to do with school or college.

Q: A 2013 study by the RAND Corporation found that inmates who enroll in correctional education are 43 percent less likely to return to prison within the following three years than are those who don't enroll in such programs. Based on your anecdotal experience, does that seem about right? What has it been like to see inmates leave prison and find secure, skilled jobs in the work force because of the Bard Prison Initiative?

A: The rate of recidivism at BPI, after 15 years, is about 4 percent for those who participate and 2 percent for those who complete a degree. The baselines are very high: recidivism is typically from 20 to 40 percent. There are many ways to measure and mismeasure these effects, but there’s no question that engagement in higher education correlates with profound reductions in recidivism. Of course, the highest reductions come from academic programs that do absolutely nothing intentional to reduce recidivism. No good college or university cares about such an outcome, nor should it. Indeed, the only way to fully reap the benefits of college in prison is if the college sticks to what it knows best: teaching and cultivating the higher learning of its students. The other “policy benefits” will follow. A college, or a public policy, that tries to turn education into a recidivism-reduction device will have done irreversible damage to what is otherwise a very precious opportunity.

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